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Dockworkers in the Dark?

Why won’t leaders of the West Coast dockworkers’ union tell rank-and-file members what’s in the tentative technology agreement with management?

After enduring a 10-day lockout by employers, and intervention by the White House under the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, the 10,500 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) were kept in the dark on the details of the technology deal announced November 1–even though it’s central to the dispute.

The union said details won’t be released to members until a full agreement is reached–perhaps not until the union’s Coast Caucus meets December 9. This unwillingness to inform–let alone involve–the rank and file is the latest example of the conservative strategy pursued by ILWU President James Spinosa.

In what was apparently an effort to avoid government intervention, Spinosa never took a rank-and-file strike authorization vote, even after the old contract expired July 1. George W. Bush intervened anyway–and although Spinosa denounced the move, he has done little to build labor solidarity against this union busting. Instead, the ILWU focused solely on campaigning for the Democrats in the November 5 elections.

The tentative agreement on technology calls for the elimination of 400 clerks’ jobs through implementation of new technology, according to press reports. In exchange, the union got guaranteed jobs for those workers as well as ILWU jurisdiction over some currently nonunion planning jobs on the docks and in rail yards. The crucial issue of whether ILWU clerks would retain jurisdiction over new jobs created by technology would be decided through arbitration.

The employers’ Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) broke off negotiations for a week to caucus over the deal. According to the management publication The Journal of Commerce, PMA hard-liners were opposed to the deal and now want to alter the arbitration system in their favor.

If they don’t get their way, they could still scuttle the agreement. In that case, Taft-Hartley would allow the presiding federal judge to force a vote on management’s “last, best and final” offer through the National Labor Relations Board after 60 days of the cooling-off period. If workers don’t cave, the employers could appeal to the incoming Republican Congress to step in.

The PMA already accused the ILWU of a work slowdown soon after dockworkers returned to their jobs October 9–and wrote a letter to the U.S. Justice Department calling for intervention. The feds obliged, sending a letter to the ILWU threatening to haul its officials before the presiding judge, who has the authority to fine the union under Taft-Hartley. Meanwhile, management has been calling for Congress to place the ILWU under the Railway Labor Act, which makes legal strikes almost impossible.

The stakes for the ILWU–and the labor movement–could scarcely be higher. Every dockworker in the ILWU should demand that union leaders tell them exactly what the technology agreement entails–now. If the agreement fails to protect jobs and union power, members need to be prepared to vote it down and develop a fighting strategy.

Why technology is the central issue

EMPLOYERS WOULD have the world believe that their dispute with the ILWU is over the union’s unwillingness to use modern computer equipment. The real issue is who gets control of the jobs that will be created in the fast-growing field of logistics–the organization of supply chains for factories and retailers.

According to USBX Investment Research, the logistics industry will grow from $56 billion in 2000 to $108 billion in 2004 as corporations outsource warehousing and use “just-in-time” delivery to reduce costs.

The employers’ lockout of the ILWU highlighted the critical role of logistics in the world economy, as a number of factories around the U.S. were forced to curtail production because of a lack of parts from Asia. That’s why the big “intermodal” freight carriers–those with sea, land and air freight operations–are backing the PMA’s effort to break the ILWU.

In turn, they are backed by big importers like Wal-Mart and Toyota in the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, who want to use technology to track shipments from factories in the Far East to U.S. plants. To meet that demand, virtually every giant shipping line has a logistics operation–including Maersk Sealand, Neptune Orient and P&O Nedlloyd.

Now, United Parcel Service has set up UPS Logistics, a nonunion operation that hauled in $1.4 billion in revenue last year. Nonunion carrier Federal Express has set up a similar outfit as well.

“The battle lines of the future have been drawn,” The Journal of Commerce observed. “Competition will no longer be company vs. company. Instead, it will be supply chain vs. supply chain.” Earlier this year, the magazine declared, “In this environment, the inefficient, manual methods of operating marine terminals have never stood out more as an obstacle to the efficient movement of goods that everyone involved in international logistics is trying to achieve.”

But management’s complaint that the union clerks currently must re-key cargo data into their terminals is a red herring. ILWU members could just as easily operate a system based on new technology.

Yet the PMA sees the ILWU as an obstacle because unionized clerks control the shipping information that’s key to logistics. And each shipping line wants to implement its own technology to gain a competitive edge in logistics–and use cheaper, nonunion labor to do it.

By apparently surrendering 400 clerks’ jobs now, ILWU President James Spinosa is only whetting the appetite of employers who want to eliminate many more jobs later.

LEE SUSTAR writes for the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: lsustar@ameritech.net

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